Valuable memoir but...

From Bullock-Cart to Mercedes- Benz — The Story of a Bihari boy by P.N. Singh; Dr. P.N. Singh Centre for HRD; Rs.175; 168 pp

Unfortunately there is a conspicuous reluctance within Indian society for people to write their memoirs or autobiographies. This reluctance is usually rooted in misplaced modesty and/ or sentiments related to low self-esteem, which is widespread in contemporary Indian society dominated by Left intellectuals who have successfully propagated the myth that groups are more important than individuals. Like most of what post-independence India’s lefties who have infiltrated Indian academia and government en masse propagate, this too is nonsense for the simple reason that it is strong, even if wrong, individuals who shape societies, not the faceless proletariat. Lenin, Stalin, Krushchev and Mao among other communist dictators who merrily sent millions of their countrymen to the gallows and gulags were much more important than the hapless people they ruled, and their memoirs and biographies became a major industry in their own countries and in the West.

But for social scientists and historians of the future, it’s not only the histories of politicians, generals and industry leaders which will prove useful. Memoirs and narratives of less famous individuals also provide useful research material and valuable insights into grassroots and middle class society. That’s the value of P.N. Singh’s autobiography From Bullock-Cart to Mercedes-Benz — The Story of a Bihari Boy. It recites the inspiring true story of the son of a rural railway station master, who through fierce application and self-study overcame the all too patent infirmities of the rural school system, made it into the Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad (Bihar) and used the public sector corporate IOC (Indian Oil Corporation) route to rise to senior, even if not apex level, positions in several of the largest private sector companies in the country before morphing into a successful entrepreneur as testified by his proud ownership of the eponymous Mercedes Benz.

In the under-developed societies of emerging countries, achievement is relative. For a Dalit who has experienced generations of degradation, abuse and continuous humiliation unique to holier-than-thou Hindu society, the acquisition of a clerical government job which affords him a desk and chair and a defined position in an organisational hierarchy is a major achievement — and a good argument for affirmative action.

Therefore while P.N. Singh may not have scaled the dizzy heights of Indian industry to the same extent as some of India’s IT czars and banking and finance wizards, given that he had started life in a dusty village in Bihar where in the absence of any worthwhile healthcare "the best died young" of mysterious diseases, and food and education was hard to come by, his passage through academia and Indian industry is a noteworthy triumph.

Especially because unlike most rustics who land a government job, Singh didn’t hang in there for the next half century until retirement. Spurred by an awareness of the need to learn continuously, he took time off from his IOC job and enrolled in the Asian Institute, Manila (1974) to earn an MBA. Following his disillusionment with the public sector work culture of IOC, Singh successfully tested his skills and expertise in the private sector, where on-the-job merit is the only passport for gauche rustics without access to the old boys network.

However although Singh experienced disappointment with the work culture of the public sector, he acknowledges that but for its existence he would not have made it into Indian industry. On the basis of his academic qualifications he was recruited into IOC without having to use influence and indulge in lobbying which in those days was de rigueur in private sector industry.

After an 18-year innings in IOC, Singh’s "struggle on the financial front" prompted him to accept the HRD portfolio in the private sector Tata-managed, multi-product Voltas Ltd, then run by the legendary A.H. Tobaccowala. While in Voltas, Singh built himself a reputation as an HRD expert, becoming president of the Indian Society for Development and Training and Bombay Management Society. Subsequently he moved on to the Aditya Birla group, the Mehta group which had businesses in Africa and the Duncan-Goenka group before going solo and promoting a corporate training and book publishing firm, which has evidently done well enough to enable Singh to realise his dream of "a flat with a sea view" and a Mercedes Benz car.

However, while it is difficult not to admire the author for the courage, grit and determination with which he educated himself and rose to fairly senior positions in Indian industry, it is also difficult to admire or commend this slipshod autobiography. For one, its production values — design, typeface, editing — are rock-bottom.

Moreover although it tells a tale of sorts, it is quite obviously bereft of any research effort. There are very few dates and numbers and hardly any business analysis. For example, Singh routinely lists his ‘heroes’ who include Ramesh Sarin, the late Aditya Birla, Sashi Buddhiraja and the late Prakash Tandon among others. All of them are written up in laudatory style, for their personal qualities and appreciation of the author’s virtues. But any insights into the secrets of their success or scale of their business or professional achievements are conspicuously missing.

Another instance of shoddy scholarship and wrong priorities: At Voltas, Singh had a ringside seat to the Ramesh Sarin-Tobaccowala stand off, which resulted in Sarin’s sensational ouster within 20 months. But this debacle is dismissed in less than two lines. Likewise, while he lauds the personal qualities of the late Aditya Birla, he fails to highlight that he was the first Indian businessman to anticipate — and act upon — globalisation. Ditto Prakash Tandon, the first Indian chairman of Hindustan Lever and author extraordinaire.

Undoubtedly, P.N. Singh’s heart is in the right place and he means well. But telling one’s story in writing requires a seriousness of purpose, research, analysis and scholarship which is lacking in this book. The Dr. P.N. Singh Centre for HRD promises the public more titles in the near future including one entitled Backstabbers — How to Protect Yourself from ‘Two-Headed Snakes’. One hopes they will be an improvement on this autobiography which promised much, but provided little.

Dilip Thakore

Salutary compendium

Improving Government Schools: What has been tried and what works; Edited by Mandira Kumar and Padma M. Sarangapani; Books for Change; Price: Rs.300; 191 pp

Arguably, the greatest failure of post-independence India has been in the education sector which has neglected the country’s greatest asset — its abundant pool of human resources. Six decades on, India hosts the largest number of illiterate people in the world, and the great majority of our schools don’t seem to be delivering even basic literacy or numeracy skills to children. Against the backdrop of recent debates on the Right to Education Bill, 2005 and the goal of universalisation of primary education by 2010, this book is a timely compilation of attempts to repair the government’s criminal neglect of school systems. Sutradhar, a Bangalore-based educational resource centre has rendered valuable public service by documenting the experiences of 20 non-government organisations (NGOs) working with government schools.

Successful NGO interventions encompass curriculum development exercises, pedagogic innovations, teacher training, language teaching, textbook design, community building, support to children from marginalised groups including the physically and mentally challenged, first generation learners, dalits, scheduled castes and tribes and so on.

On reading the book, the factor that emerges as the greatest impediment to achieving the goal of quality education for all, is poor quality teaching. In this connection this anthology makes an important point — teachers need to be encouraged to relate the subjects they teach to children’s native environments to facilitate absorption and comprehension. To this end, the initiatives of Suvidya (a Bangalore-based educational resource centre), which has designed a maths lab of 65 materials and 35 charts and adapted local folk games to facilitate maths learning, are instructive and worthy of replication in all primary schools. Comments Padma Sarangapani on the classroom impact of this initiative: "The classroom vibrated with the activity and richness of opportunities of learning that the maths lab opened up. One could see how games and puzzles included in the lab encourage children to be independent and to interact in the peer group."

One of the grim and under-publicised realities of government primary schools is that 20 percent of them, which translates into 200,000 countrywide, are multigrade institutions. Which means that a single teacher is obliged to teach pupils of varying ability and gradations simultaneously. Therefore quite obviously, conventional teacher training is of limited utility to such teachers. The success of satellite schools of the Rural Education Centre (REC) of the Krishnamurthi Foundation of India in training teachers to approach and cope with multigrade teaching, is narrated in an illuminating essay ‘Multigrade Schools of Rishi Valley’.

There are many other constructive suggestions about ways and means of improving learning outcomes in government — especially rural — schools which are pathetic, as confirmed by Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2005 (see cover story) in this valuable compendium, which should be mandatory reading for every educrat in the Central and state governments. The essays describe successful interventions of the Vigyan Ashram in rural Maharashtra; PRISM (Project in Science and Mathematics) of the Bombay Municipal Corporation; the radio broadcast English language learning programme of the Centre for Learning Resources, Pune; the language teaching improvement programme of the Pragart Shikshan Sanstha, Phaltan (Maharashtra); the Prashika child-centric curriculum devised by Eklavya, Madhya Pradesh, among other beneficial NGO initiatives in government schools. Each essay in this thought provoking collection is a valuable case history with the potential to vastly enrich the national debate on improving learning outcomes in India’s schools, which is gathering momentum.

Mandira Kumar and Padma Sarangapani certainly deserve the gratitude of the larger community for conceptualising this attractive and eminently readable book. It has a useful resource directory, but its value would have been enhanced if it had a subject index and a concluding chapter, summarising the impact of NGO interventions in public education.

Cavery Bopaiah